Thursday, December 24, 2009

History lesson

Every so often the issue of the so-called "holy trinity" of MMORPG design makes its way around the place. Everyone's got some idea that if only everybody else would realise the wisdom of, the world would be a better place.

A couple of months ago I had an argument with a random chat person in Aion about the Holy Trinity system. His stance was that it is the simplest way to approach an RPG combat system, including actual design and also programming of the AI. This was apparently evidenced by [insert slew of MMO titles]. I said, no, it's not the simplest, and it's not intuitive. It's also not particularly fun. His retort was something along the lines of "Oh yeah? Name one game that doesn't use that system".

After climbing back onto my seat, I realised that this fellow had fairly much only ever played MMO's. Those of us who like to write about these things we call games are often armchair game designers. But it's pretty difficult to have any meaningful input on game design if you haven't played the important games in the genre.

It seems to me that there were two main parallels of evolution in the online RPG genre. People in the first stream played games like EverQuest, got hooked on WoW, and try the big budget MMO's that come out. These people write articles about how we can tweak the Holy Trinity to be more fun, and/or argue with people in general chat about how awesome it is.

The rest of us played Diablo 2.

Now, I realise that for those of you who never played Diablo 2 on Battle Net (important), it may be a bit late to get into. The thing looks a bit dated, doesn't have as many people playing it anymore, etc. Here is a little refresher course then so that you can see how the other side lived:

1) Enemy AI pretty much just goes for whoever it sees first. Only thing is, the shit is going to be flying from every which way so pretty much everyone has to be able to look after themselves. This is easy to design, easy to program, easy for players to understand, and is quite fun.

2) There are no healers. Everyone heals themselves with potions, but these don't help when you get hit too fast all at once.

3) Except when they do help. You even get potions that instantly restore all your health and mana. These are your get out of jail free cards. But they are hard to come by and you only hold so many. You do need them from time to time because that shit, that flies in so fast? It hits hard.

4) The game consists of 7 different classes, each one of which is useful to have in any group. Each one feels radically different to play. Many of them synergise quite well with each other. You would never sit around in a game waiting for any one class to show up.

However, at the same time, some do better at tanking. Some do better at damage. Some are a compromise between the two. But they are never extremes.

5) Did I mention the shit flying in fast? This isn't a game where you spend a minute grinding down a monster that's 2 levels above you. Your longest spell cooldown is about 1 second, and is often limited by how fast you can get your little sucker to animate each one. As fast as that shit be flyin' in, you are reigning all kinds of death down to take it out.

6) Most games are public games. Anyone can join a public game. Once they do, the enemies in the world get harder to kill. This makes it pretty much beneficial for you to take whoever just joined the game along with you, as it soon becomes quite tough to solo.

7) Unless you're playing in "hardcore" (one life only) mode, making mistakes isn't that big a deal. You don't have to restart the "raid" for mis-clicking a button. If somebody dies, it's usually not going to mess the whole team up.


Diablo 2 has sold millions of copies as a result of its fun, addictive gameplay and easily accessible multiplayer. Clearly the traditional Holy Trinity is not the only way to do things. But WoW was en even bigger hit for Blizzard, surely its gameplay is even more fun?

Well, no. There are many other reasons why WoW is the most financially successful game to date. The extra time and money spent to progress make it harder to stop playing. There are massive social elements available. There's the more immersive, open world to explore. The graphics are better, including the shift to 3D. There were a lot more people with the internet in 2004 than there were in 2000.

But gameplay? Before 'thinking outside the box' to dissect and reassemble the Holy Trinity, it's worth just taking a little history lesson (ironically, it's still a lesson brought to the masses by Blizzard, which should at least make it palatable to those that need it most).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Moving in with the gf's parents

Ha ha, yeah... My girlfriend and I are getting old (28) and want to buy a house sometime soon. It ain't going to happen unless we save a deposit, so long story short, we are going to be moving back to her parents place (in the outer rim) to save money for a year. Ordinarily I would have been against the idea, but there was potential for something that pushed me over the line:


My girlfriend has a younger brother (21) who still lives at home and he loves video games and so does his girlfriend. He's never actually had a computer powerful enough to play anything other than Farmville, but luckily I have two. I've been buying up a bunch of Steam specials (and then some) in preparation for the LANage. Dawn of War and Company of Heroes could be good. I might even dig up Diablo 2 (love that game).

I also want to introduce him to the MMO world, but I'm not sure which one to show him first. He's still studying for his diploma, so I don't want to corrupt his free time too much. WoW is definitely out of the question. There is also the problem that my second computer is 5 years old and can't run much above Guild Wars, CoH or WoW. I was thinking Guild Wars because I love that game, but it seems to be slowly dying at the moment. I also have 1800+ hours on it and have played through all it's content a few times over. It would be fun for him, but not so much for me. My other thought was Wizard 101. He plays Magic the Gathering with his mates and Pokemon on his DS. Wizard 101 seems like a good combination of the two and should run on my old computer. It's also cheap in comparison to most MMOs. I reviewed Wizard 101 when it was first released and thought it was an excellently designed game. My only issues were the slow battles and repetitive card animations. These aren't exactly horribly bad points, so I'll most likely be firing it back up again just after Christmas (when the move happens).

In the mean time, I'll keep enjoying Torchlight and the other 10 Steam specials I've purchased over the last week. I swear, I have a weakness for game specials...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Syncaine post of the week

WoW has recently added a feature that allows people to be randomly paired to go and do instances, regardless of where they are on the map or even what server they are on. This removes the ridiculous several-hour wait to get a group together so that people can actually go and have fun. Coming from someone who would usually take any opportunity to slam WoW for its evil design decisions, I can tell you, this is one of the most wonderful features that has ever been added to an MMO. And the mast majority of people are loving it.

Syncaine is upset by this. I'm not really sure why I'm surprised.

Fortunately I don't have to construct a response - here's one I prepared earlier.

Oh, he also managed to make the following ridiculous assertion:

"a sharp reminder that the WoW crowd is very different from the MMO crowd"

Riiiight. Have fun back in Darkfall with the 'real' MMO players then. Tell them both I said hello.

Keen post of the week

Keen's QQ of the week is brought to you by Star Trek Online.

Keen is upset because the recently announced Klingon faction is not a separate playable faction, but is more akin to Monster Play from LotRO. As you know, I am bound by my sacred duty to rebutt ridiculous blog posts to make comment.

"Why isn’t it just another faction? Why does it have to be a gimmicky “additional advancement path” or whatever they’re calling it? Why can’t we have two sides struggling in a war that are balanced and able to play and progress the same? I envisioned two fully fleshed out sides interacting with each other in battles, economics, and more."

1) Because that would make the game take twice as long to make?
2) There has been no open world faction-based PvP game yet released that actually meets those criteria - it is kind of difficult to pull off, if you've been paying much attention.
3) Assuming that they decided against a full extra faction at launch for the above 2 reasons, isn't it actually quite nice of them to implement Klingons anyway? Must all gift horses be looked in the mouth? (Answer if you're a whiny MMO blogger - yes).
3) No Klingon worth his forehead furrows is going to progress by killing a bunch of lame rats. Klingons progressing through PvP sounds like it fits right in with the lore to me. +50 XP every time you teabag an opponent.

"The PvP is going to be pushed off into tiny little corners of the map"

1) Have you ever actually watched an episode of Star Trek?

"So much talk about the scenarios and “maps” and I have yet to hear about flying around in space in any open-world sort of way. Is it all just instanced areas/missions without any ability to randomly come across another ship and do battle?.... you’ll just “warp speed” to the PvP areas and “warp speed” out when you’re done"

1) People don't like being ganked
2) Only 15 year olds with an inferiority complex enjoy ganking unprepared, underlevelled, undergeared targets
3) Scenarios where you can just jump in and jump out whenever you like are great fun, and the vast majority of the people appreciate the convenience.
4) Warping in and out of missions fits right in with the lore.

"Lots of preorder rewards being talked about from various places, but until these little (not so little) details get cleared up I’m not paying a dime."

Lies - after Keen decides that Allod's online fails for whatever reason, he'll play it, fall in love with it, slam everyone who's not playing it, start to identify some problems with it, rage at it, quit it, and then slam everyone who's still playing it. Within the space of about 2 months. The circle of life continues.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Allods beta-key fail

I got an email a few days ago saying I had been accepted into the Allods beta:

I have to admit, I was a little interested after reading this post from Tesh and seeing this video from Chappo. So I logged into the site and attached the beta key to my login:

Now all that was left was to download the game and play..

3 hours later, install game...



I'm not really sure why, but it doesn't let me log in using the account I signed up for. It's not the login or password, because I can log into the Allods website with them. I tried creating a new account and attaching the beta key to that, but it just says the beta key is already in use (obviously). Anyone else having the same problem?

I'm happy to put this down to user error if someone tells me what I did wrong, but I swear I took the logical path?!?...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

5,000 hours

Only Tobold can say whether spending 5,000 hours playing WoW was the most cost efficient way to have fun during his leisure time over the last 5 years. We will have to take him at his word when he tells us that such a length of time has not had long term ramifications on his social relationships and his health.

But I don't think that this is good advice for the majority of people. The majority who have clocked up that amount of time on a single game have moved long past the point where they are having real 'fun' and are simply addicted.

Further, I am amused by Tobold's comparison of WoW and Dragon Age. His thesis seems to be that:

time taken = fun had

I would think it would be more valid to say:

time taken - time spent on repetitive seeming tasks = fun had

Of course, this depends on what seems overly repetitive to the individual. For me, the "fun had" side of the equation for a game like WoW is well into the negative. For Tobold, it's well into the positive.

I've never seen a picture of Tobold, but I am struck by the image of him running ceaselessly in a giant hamster wheel, tongue gleefully hanging out to one side. A big red button may be pressed that sometimes dispenses cheese. The frequency of cheese dispensation is inversely proportional to the number of cheese morsels that have been dolled out to date. Bemused scientists look on from the sidelines making notes in their clipboards, wondering whether this beast of epic endurance will ever tire of their test.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Demigod style PvP in Diku MMOs?

I've been playing a lot of Demigod lately, especially since the Demon Assassin update, and I had a thought: Why not put Demigod style PvP arenas in games like Aion, WoW, WAR etc? It would put everyone on the same starting level regardless of weapons/armour/items. It would be challenging and fun, but most of all fair.

For those that haven't played Demigod, you basically choose a god (each have diff skills/abilities), join a team and then fight against another team of demigods. Everyone starts at level one with no weapons or armour and you gain XP and gold by killing waves of enemy NPC grunts that come from gates (in the bases), capturing flags or killing other demigods. Each time you level up, you can spend one skill point. You can also buy weapons and armour with your hard earned gold. Each flag you capture has a different bonus, i.e. +15% Health/Mana, +20% Skill Cool Downs etc. Flags can be recaptured at any time provided they aren't being defended. The ultimate goal is to destroy the other team's citadel, which is defended by destructible guard towers.

Now lets apply this PvP game style to something like WoW. Each class would be the different demigods. There could be 16 levels, with 5 skill points given per level. Everyone has a very basic starting weapon and no armour. You can buy/upgrade these in the game as you earn gold from killing NPC grunts, capturing flags or killing other players. The grunts could start as Murlocs or something and slowly level up as the game progresses. They would spawn from each other's bases and meet in the middle.

I definitely think it would work and it would mean you wouldn't have to grind endless hours for levels and items just to enjoy PvP. May cause a few care-bears with epic loot to cry though ;P

Friday, November 20, 2009

Aion review part 2

The last you heard from me I had embarked upon my great journey to the unknown. Many moons later now I return unto you, broken and scarred from my travels, to delight you with tales from the fabled Abyss itself. (Ok, only one moon later... I've been listening to a lot of Dragon Age cut-scenes lately and accidentally break into melodramatic fantasy monologue from time to time).

In the earlier review I told you that Aion is a game of much polish, much prettiness, and much grinding. I was willing to bear the grind so that I could see the Abyss - that ginormous PvEvP area of theoretical MMO perfection. My thoughts:

The Abyss is the coolest looking area in the game, by far. It's a bizarre, abstract, twisted area that almost feels like you're in space. A giant red sun, asteroids hurtling randomly at you from nowhere, jagged platforms drifting aimlessly around, and stargate-esque devices that recharge your flight timer. When I arrived I felt that it had all been worth it.

This feeling was enhanced when I got my first sniff of RvR. Running around with a giant group of people and being part of a mindless zerg is undeniably fun sheerly for the epic nature of it all.

Unfortunately these feelings of epic grandeur did not last. Being in a massive zerg was a performance nightmare, with framerate dropping to something like 2 fps. I had to turn all my graphics settings to minimum to avoid the frequent crashes that otherwise plague all who would attempt a fortress raid. Bear in mind, my computer is moderately beastly and handles other newly released games on maximum settings just fine. This is the only area where the game does not feel "polished". I'm beginning to wonder if anyone will ever release an MMO that can support a large number of players all doing things at once.

The performance issues were probably exacerbated by my ~700 ping to the American servers, playing from Australia. When I played Guild Wars on American servers my pings were less than half this - I'm not sure exactly what is up with their net code, but it does not seem optimal for overseas types.

Performance aside, fortress raids are relatively few and far between. It is actually advantageous to NOT capture fortresses since one of the best sources for XP and higher levels is to kill the repeatedly respawning fortress guards of the opposing faction. Capture the fortress and you lose that ability.

When I actually did get to go to fortress raids and manage not to crash, I discovered that my contribution to the attack on the NPC's was laughably pathetic. Even at level 32 my auto attacks did literally 1 damage at a time to the elite fortress NPC's. It made me feel so pathetically worthless - the whole point of an RPG is to create the illusion that you're a superstar ("wow, you reached level 12, you can now cast mega fireball of raining death, congratulations!") as opposed to making you feel like an insiginificant gnat. The level disparity is just as bad when fighting other players - when you see one fellow effortlessly slice through a dozen "lesser" players, you just have to shake your head and wonder what the designers were thinking.

I'm sure things would feel better at high levels. But the grind... oh, the grind. If I thought it was bad at the lower levels, that is nothing compared to the situation now that I'm over level 30. Do I want to punish myself that much to get to the maximum level? Is it really that important to me to then be the one that can one-shot a bunch of "n00bs" and feel like I'm so amazingly talented at the game, when in reality I am pushing the same 1-2-3 buttons as all the other players?

The answer is no. If the levelling was faster, if the level disparity was not so important, if RvR happened more often and without crashing my computer, then I would probably be all over it.

Game over!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

MMO commitment issues

It's not you, it's me... I think...

Problem no 1: MMOs require a considerable time commitment in order to get to the higher echelons of the game. If you're not 100% happy with an MMO when you first buy it, it seems like a smart move to pull out early before you commit too much time to the grind.

This happened with me and Warhammer Online. There were some issues with the game I wasn't happy with, so I quit at the one month mark. The same happened with Aion. Issues, quit. Both games were not horribly bad, but because they used subscription models, I didn't feel like I should keep paying when I wasn't 100% happy. Why waste $90 US and 6 months of time, when you can be playing something else more enjoyable.

Some people like to refer to this type of behavior as MMO tourism. Well, I honestly don't like to tour anything, I just want to be certain that I'm getting a good source of entertainment for my time and money investment. You could think of it as an MMO shareholder really. If the entertainment value is potentially high, then I'm happy to invest.

Problem no 2: All the 'good' content in an MMO these days is at the endgame. When a new MMO is released, nobody knows what the end game is like. Should I take a risk and invest my time/money or should I move to something with a proven entertaining endgame (i.e an older MMO)?

To me it seems smarter to hang back and wait for the MMO to prove itself before making a commitment. This can be a little difficult when you see shiny new graphics and your friends are telling you how cool the battle animations are etc. There is also the fact that you don't want your character to be 6 months behind everyone else's.

Problem no 3: MMOs always release full of bugs and design issues. This does nothing to bolster confidence when determining whether to make a commitment.

Problem no 4: MMO companies love to slap you with that $15 US credit card fee right off the bat, before you've barely tested the water.

This always pisses me off, especially when I've just paid $50+ US for the game. A reward would be nice, since I just choose to buy their game over many others out there... but nope... more money please.

Problem no 5: When the meter is ticking, it feels like you need to get your money's worth. This sux if you're a casual gamer or even if you want to play multiple MMOs at the same time.

What happens if I want to play a new MMO casually? Is such a thing sacrilege these days? I don't like the feeling that my money is draining away when I'm not playing...

Solution no 1: Don't charge a subscription fee.

Solution no 2: If you are going to charge a subscription fee, don't start doing it until players have made a considerable time commitment to the game, or at least felt like they've had their initial money's worth (like 3 months). It's harder to leave when you've invested more...

In summary, the MMO companies need to lose the subscription fee or their MMO will struggle greatly to get off the ground. I'm sure I'm not the only one having commitment issues.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Guild Wars 2 Art Book

After I got back from my Europe trip, the Guild Wars 2 RSS news feed was the first one I looked at when firing up my google reader for the first time 2 months. Apologies to other bloggers (you come second). Unfortunately there was no mention of a beta or possible release date, which was little disappointing, but all was not lost. There was news of a book containing the artwork of Guild Wars 2. I'm a big fan of fantasy art and an even bigger fan of Guild Wars, so I jumped onto the NCSoft store and ordered me up a copy. The book itself cost $30 US, and the postage to Australia was about $18 US. Still sounded like a bargin to me.

Fifteen days later the package arrived. I hastedly opened it and began scimming through...

Well, impressed would be an understatement. The book is 128 pages of pure unadulterated GW fantasy concept art goodness. As an added bonus, the book includes artist notes and considerable lore about Guild Wars 2. Drool..

All I can say is that if you love GW, this book is a must. Knowing now what the book contains, I would have payed twice that price (probably 3 times). If your not a die hard fan however, you can still view some of the concept artwork for GW2 on the official site. You can also get your hands on some GW2 info over at the wiki or FAQ. Now back to the waiting game...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Aion out, Dragon Age in

Yup, like what the title says. Aion wasn't fun, so I stopped playing. Dragon Age is RPG heaven! Every time my Rogue performs a backstab, an angel gets it's wings!

If for some reason I ever decide to play a Diku style MMO again, it will be WoW. Although I despise it for it's business model and grind-o-time-sink type leveling, it still does it better than any other Diku style MMO out there.

You don't need me to tell you about Dragon Age, because if you were serious about RPGs you would already be playing it. Love that backstab!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Aion: Bad Quest Design

Well... just about all quests in Aion are badly designed, but there is one that stood out more than the others. I received it when my Cleric reached level 17:

Yup, that's right, I have to resurrect 100 fallen allies. If you are wondering what the problem with this quest is, then hang your head in shame!

What's the fastest way for a Cleric (healer), who is responsible for keeping the entire group alive, to get 100 resurrections?

"Oh jeez, sorry buddy... went afk for a sec... here let me rez you.."

"Sorry phone rang, don't worry I've got rez"

You get the idea...

A good cleric would never let a team mate die (on purpose). So in actual fact, the quest is punishing the player for being a skillful healer. Furthermore the reward of 20,000 kinah is only really a large sum to a low level char. Once you pass 25 or so, you are making 20k or so off every quest run (drops alone). By the time I credibly resurrected 100 team mates, my character is likely to be level 40+. At which point the reward is useless.

Like I said, bad quest design.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Very, very jealous...

Emily got to play Guild Wars 2 for a day.

She's my hero!

I honestly couldn't think of a better wish. Nice work Emily!

Hat's off to ArenaNet for being so awesome as well.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Torchlight demo thoughts

Yes, I'm on a demo rampage this weekend!

Good thoughts:

1) Dungeon crawling feels fun, slick, and streamlined. There is lots of loot, but the mechanics are transparent enough that it's not too difficult to decide which to junk and which to keep. The skill system is easy to use and the skills themselves are quite fun. A range attack that pierces through enemies *and* rebounds off walls? Yes please.

Between this and Kivi's Underworld there are a lot of good ideas for maximizing the fun in these kinds of games, and I'd recommend playing both for anyone looking to design their own.

2) You get a pet that semi-tanks for you. It has an inventory which you can fill with crap, then send it on its way back to town to sell. Much win.

3) You can duel-wield a ranged and melee weapon, and you will fire/swing with the most appropriate one depending on the range of your target. I had a blast (pun intended) with my hammer in one hand and a pistol in the other.

4) I'm fairly sure the levels are at least semi-randomly generated, which keeps things fresh (that or I have a really bad memory)

Bad thoughts:

1) The cartoony graphics don't do it for me. They are cute if you like that sort of thing though, so WoW players won't see any disadvantage there. For me though it's a waste of an opportunity to create any sort of tension with the atmosphere.

2) There is no multiplayer. They are apparently working right now on making an MMO out of the game and I assume using the single player proceeds to fund this. But, some simple direct connection support circa 1992 would have been much appreciated.

3) The story feels like a direct rip-off of Diablo 1. I mean, they are quick to point out in interviews that "we are the dudes who made Diablo so we are awesome", but you can't just ctrl-c -> ctrl-v the whole thing.

4) One thing that was also plagiarized, which was always quite lame about the Diablo games, was the need to dump multiple skill points in a particular skill, usually for little tangible benefit. Ooh, fear the wrath of my increased 6% weapon DPS! (That's right, they actually use the terminology "DPS" in the tool-tips... that needs to die, stat). I much prefer the other approach where once you have something, that's it, it's yours... a la Dungeons and Dragons, Guild Wars, even Aion.

So in summary, they've got the core dungeon crawling mechanics done very, very solidly. But with no multiplayer and that cartoony look, I just don't find myself wanting to spend much more time with this one.

Left 4 Dead 2 Demo thoughts

The demo has gone live for those that pre-ordered the game. I am... almost never one to pre-order games, but when it comes to Valve I just have to slap the money down.

Good thoughts:

a) The melee weapons are both hilarious and awesome. There is a guitar, a machete and a frying pan in the demo. The machete is close enough to being a katana if you squint a little.

b) I was worried that I would miss the old characters, but the new ones seem just as endearing. I like running around with a southern USA accent.

c) The new special infected are cool. There's a 'jockey' that jumps on your back, a 'charger' who is like a mini tank, and a 'spitter' who coats the ground in acid (this last will be especially appreciated against teams that camp a corner in versus matches).

Bad thoughts:

a) Day time is not as scary as night time

b) Some graphics-related performance issues. The game regularly freezes up for 5-10 seconds using the same settings I play Left 4 Dead 1 with. I'm sure these will be patched.

c) The censored Australian version is laughably light on the gore. When the corpses hit the floor they just fade from sight. This makes me a sad panda.

So overall I am pleased, but I hope there are more dark areas in the full version and I hope there is some dodgy way to obtain un-neutered carnage (anybody heard of one?).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Making peace with the Diku

Paying $15 US a month to grind endless hours away on repetitive tasks to gain minor virtual advancement, sound tempting to you?

After playing WoW for 6 months, I swore I would never go back to a Diku MMO. Oddly I played WAR for a month and am now playing Aion. What the hell dude??

The answer is simple:
  • I knew there would be boring grind
  • I knew that it would take a good 2-4 months to get anywhere in the game
  • I knew it would cost me an ongoing subscription fee
.. and I didn't care.

All I wanted was to submerge my mind in a fantasy universe and brain out for a couple of hours a night. Maybe even get a dopamine fix here and there.

My expectations for Aion were low. For a Diku MMO that has only just been released, I was pleasantly surprised. The game has very few bugs, looks gorgeous and has relatively smooth combat. My only complaints are that the servers are based somewhere light years from Australia providing me with a 700+ ping. When they say 'Oceanic server', it would be nice if they actually put the server in Australia!

Anywayz, my point is that the world is going to keep serving up diku MMO type WoW clones. You can spend your gaming life slagging them for bad design, or you can enjoy them for the masterpieces of art that they actually are. So it's time to suck it up and make peace with the Diku. For now...

...grumble... subscription fee... grumble...

...grumble, when is GW2 out? grumble...

Friday, October 23, 2009

AFK Over!

Would you believe that I haven't posted in over 3 months! If you were wondering why (or you never noticed until now, but still want to know why), I've been traveling around Europe with a few of my mates for a few months. It's been a hell of a trip and for the most of it I didn't have access to a computer, nor did I want it. Hence the no posting or game playing. I saw many great cities and land marks in my travels, and had a tonne of fun doing it. My itinerary looked something like this:

London -> Madrid -> Barcelona -> Paris -> Bruges -> Amsterdam -> Berlin -> Prague -> Vienna -> Munich -> Venice -> Rome.

I really wanted to cover Ireland, Scotland and Northern Europe (Denmark, Sweeden, Finland etc), but there just wasn't time.

The highlight of the trip was definitely Oktoberfest in Munich. I was there for 5 days, with a best effort of 8 steins in one day. I still can't believe how many people there were in one place drinking beer. If you haven't been, then I suggest you make plans to go (assuming you like beer, and even if you don't).

My favourite city was a tie between Amsterdam and Berlin. Amsterdam had a few things to offer that would normally be considered illegal (++), but the beer was expensive (-). Berlin had the best pubs/clubs and party atmosphere (although I'm sure Dublin would have been a winner had I of made it there). The best beer I had was in Belgium and was called 'Strasse Hendrik', although Germany definitely had some close seconds. Best land mark went to Rome for the Colosseum. You have to see it to believe it.

All in all, I've had a wonderful time and was glad to completely put computers out of my life for 2.5 months, but now that I'm back, it's back to business! :) Melf has informed me that Aion is worth a look, but he hasn't made up his mind on the PvP yet. I downloaded it last Sunday and have a level 13 Cleric. My early thoughts are that Aion is blatant diku based MMO that makes no attempt to conceal the kill ten rats side of things. Unless the PvP is good, I can't see myself sticking around for any more than a month. Graphics are gorgeous though (I'm sure you've heard the same thing from 50+ sources). Moving on..

In other news Guild Wars released an update today that has my attention. A new type of PvP mode called Codex Arena, which sounds like the game designers from ArenaNet have their heads screwed on right (as usual). I'll post some thoughts once I give it run.

Good to be back ;)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Aion review

So, I'm playing Aion at the moment. I was going to give a little synopsis and then proceeed into a piece-by-piece breakdown of the game, but I realised that for Aion (and perhaps for most MMOs) this is not appropriate. Aion is a game of fantastical highs but also drudgerous lows; you will either grind and bear it because you think the highs are worth it, or you will leave it by the wayside after being exposed to the horror of the grind. An overview would be of little use...

... Although "like WoW but with wings" would be a fairly good one.

I shall break things up into the most relevant areas that I think any MMO should be critiqued on. I'll start with the ones that Aion does well:

1) Wonder 5/5

This is what the Bartle "explorer" feeling is all about - that general sense of wonder when you experience new facets of a game. Aion is literally a wonderous experience. The zones are incredibly laid out and pretty to look at. Here is the 6th screenshot from my screenshots folder (in keeping with a recent meme):

As you can see, I'm flying, there are some giant elephant/dinosaur/kind of messed up animals, the water is quite lovely looking, etc. I'm really not a graphics whore by any means but this aspect of the game is very impressive. Note that the graphics themselves are not always great - some of the textures, and especially the flowing water effects in the game, can look quite low-tech. But the vistas themselves are always something to behold.

The flying adds to that feeling a lot. You may have heard that you can not fly in all the zones - this is true. However, you can always "glide", which basically means that if you find even a slightly raised hill, you can coast your way along for quite some amount of time. There is some level of skill involved (I dare say, more than in the actual combat system; more on this below) and this actually makes it quite fun traveling to various locations. The wings are obtained at level 10 which felt like it took a couple of hours to get to (i.e. not too long).

2) Polish 5/5

People always talk about the famous Blizzard polish, which I'm sure we're all quite sick of hearing about. Aion is really, really well polished, so get ready to hear more of that term. Performance is great even for me connecting all the way from Australia. The translation from the original Korean is in flawless, flawless English - even the jokes are well localized. There are a couple of typos here and there but it's actually better than any other Western game I've played. There are voice-overed tutorials for key game aspects. There's hyper-linking of items and map locations and quests into the chat. You can even save map locations from other people - for example I've downloaded a location text file from the forums containing the locations of all the PvP rifts that open from time to time (joining the two separate worlds). There is a "locate" function for finding the next mob you're looking for or difficult to find NPC's.

The list goes on - the game is just smooth.

3) Character appearance customization 4.5/5

The character generator does not have the same flexibility of City of Heroes, but this is purely because Aion is not a superhero game. In terms of non-over-the-top customization, Aion knocks the competition into the water. In other words, yes, you can make a ridiculously hot female character to ogle if you're a man (I'm not so sure about the sexual attractiveness of the male characters; sorry ladies).

4) Achievements 4/5

I class Achievement features as pretty much anything that goes "ding". Between leveling up your character, your items, your crafting skill, your PvP rank, getting rich, completing quests and obtaining titles, there seems to be a lot to do to keep all the achievers occupied. There is really nothing new over what WoW brought to the table hence why it can't be given a 5 (disclaimer; I'm not really the biggest "achiever" type, so I'm basing this somewhat on what others say in-game and how similar to WoW it is).

5) Travel 4/5

As said above, you can fly, which gives automatic bonus points in my book. A flying mount is just not as cool. There are also fast flight and/or teleportation NPC's in most places that you need to go to. Some places don't have these, but are conveniently often located a long way away down gently descending land, meaning that you can glide there to your heart's content.

6) Zoning 4/5

The game is not instanced for the most part and there are no loading screens except on teleportation, so I know that will appeal to the "open world" fans out there. Again the game definitely plays up to the explorers.

However the game actually features multiple channels in the more crowded areas, which can be freely switched between every 3 minutes. This is actually a similar approach to what I've heard Age of Conan does, but where AoC was ridiculed Aion seems to be being praised. I think the difference is that it's quite out of the way so as not to break immersion (I didn't even realise about it until digging around in the settings), yet it still offers the massive convenience of getting around queuing up for spawns and general overcrowding.

So, that was the good, and there's been a decent enough amount of it to keep me playing. But you didn't think I'd go on extolling the virtues of a WoW clone for the entire review did you? Here is where Aion is really quite dismal:

1) Gameplay 1/5

Gameplay in Aion is non-existent. In this sense it really is WoW with wings. You have a bunch of skills that you mash in order, on cool-down. Changing the order is rarely if ever indicated as it will have little impact on the fight. There is a little more skill required in groups to prevent aggroing too much etc, just as in WoW. This is not a "gamey" game in other words.

One thing that really bugs me about games like this is the "one monster at a time" rule. The monsters are just too tough for you to be able to take on very many of them at once. Sure, if you want to provide me with no challenge then go ahead and do it - but could you at least make me feel powerful by letting me slaughter a horde of enemies at once instead of one at a time? Give me Diablo 2 any day of the week.

There are hardly even any AoE skills in the game, so it's not even possible to get a good group together and AoE a bunch of mobs down. Stuff like that could make the grind (discussed next) quite a bit more tolerable.

2) Grinding 2/5

There are some racist people who claim that Koreans love their grind games. At least, that's what I thought until I played Aion. The game is a massively soul sucking grind fest (hmmm MMOSG??). I felt this way about WoW, but Aion is noticeably worse. I am only rating it a 2/5 because I have heard that Everquest was worse again.

3) Grouping 1/5

Grouping is dismal, for only one reason - there is no bonus XP when in a group. This means that DPS characters are much, much better off leveling up solo. Even the healers are better off due to down-time in between pulls etc. I'm actually playing side-by-side with my girlfriend and we decided to split up and farm mobs separately so that we could level faster. That is a massive, massive design flaw for a "massively" multiplayer game (I can't remember what WoW does there).

4) Build customization 2/5

There are 8 classes currently in Aion. You begin as one of 4 archetypes (Warrior, Scout, Mage, Priest) and then each of these has 2 classes available to it, which you select one of (permanently) at level 10. So far so good.

However, up until level 20 you will have the exact same skills and stats as every other player of your class. There is no talent tree, no opportunity cost, none of that good old sit-down-and-knuckle-out-your-own-build kind of fun. Your stats can be modified somewhat by your gear, but generally the way to go there is just "focus on stat XX" - it's not very complicated. I'm not a big fan of needlessly complicated RPG mechanics (in fact I hate it), but this is too bare bones for me.

After level 20 things get better, as you gain access to "stigma" skills. These are basically extra skills that you can equip, however there are only a limited number able to be equipped at once so there should be some sort of opportunity cost involved. I am only level 21 at the moment so I don't have much more experience than that. It will be a long time before I get to tinker because the best stigma are highly sought after and expensive, so at the moment I have to rate build customization quite low. It's possible that I'll feel differently at a higher level, but really, every other RPG gives you character build customization at level 1 (or before!). That's supposed to be a staple.

5) Crafting 2/5

Crafting in this game is an even more epic grind than the actual game itself. Just like leveling your character level, leveling your crafting is even more painful than in WoW. The saving grace that prevents this from being a 1/5 is that there are "work orders", where the crafting NPC gets you to make something useless, but he gives you most of the materials. This is designed purely to allow you to level your crafting without paying too much money. This is very considerate of them; however, it is possibly the most boring thing I could imagine doing with my time.

On the other hand, it does allow me to read the forums and what-not. I am actually writing this entire review while my character busily works away at the crafting bench, which should give you an idea of how long it takes. You actually can level from crafting, but I wouldn't reccommend it. I spoke to a fellow yesterday who went from level 24 to 25 entirely from crafting. It cost him 400 k (about twice as much money as I have managed to save by level 21), and it took him 9 hours. Yes, the correct response is "lol" - however at least he was able to queue it all up and then go to sleep.

6) Enemies 2/5

The monsters in the game are for the most part quite ridiculous looking. On the one hand it's good because it's not the same tired old elves-and-dwarves fantasy fare. On the other hand, the enemies are so round, fat and squat looking that I want to poke them with a stick in the name of science rather than slaughter them. I don't think it's too much to ask for monsters that look a little more bad-ass. I am hoping that once I get to the abyss, the Balaur (the NPC faction) will look more intimidating. I know that the enemy players will look cool, so at least that's something.

7) Quests 2.5/5

Kill 10 rats. Good, now go and kill 10 slightly different rats. Nice job. Now kill 8 of these rats and 7 of those rats (some kind of psychological trick to hide the fact that the number of rats I'm being asked to kill is increasing, I'm sure). While you're there, could you collect X of this and Y of that - cheers.

In other words, standard MMO quests. However they do tend to make pretty much everything in any given area be something that you need to do for some quest or other. Kill a mob to satisfy one quest, collect the berries sitting next to it, kill the mob on the other side for some other quest, etc. It gives you kind of a "Ok, you're here, and you're going to be grinding for quite some time, but at least you're multitasking" feeling.

The quest text is extremely well written, but there's a lot of it, and as usual I don't read it. I have to say, if the game wasn't grindy, I probably would read it (I did for the first couple of levels).

There are a few quests that stand out from the dreary fare which I'd give 5/5 for general awesomeness (being teleported "accidentally" into enemy territory and being told to find my own way back was particularly awesome), but the dreary majority of quests has to lower the score.

The one thing that has been surprisingly left out of my review so far is of course PvP. The wonderousness of the game only gets me so far - the real reason that I'm putting up with the grind is because I want to get to level 25, which is the level that you can enter the abyss, which is the free-for-all PvP area. Call me old fashoined, but mention the words "fortress siege" to me and I just get all giddy. I'm quite excited to see how the PvP pans out after reading the hectic-sounding accounts in general chat. The "hostile to all" third NPC faction may be just what large-scale MMO RvR action needs.

It's a big let-down that I haven't been able to try PvP earlier than this. I went into the arena and fought a little against my girlfriend (who schooled me quite hard by the way), but it was devoid of other people. I miss WAR in this respect, where I could PvP all the way through the game if I wanted to, even from level 1. Scenarios were a great "jump in and have fun" feature as well and I definitely miss that aspect.

In summary, I'm still playing the game. I'm enjoying the scenery, and uncovering new aspects of the game and I'm very much looking forward to the PvP, and these things are allowing me to push through the interminable grind to the light of day at the end of the tunnel. If you're not much bothered by grind and are an achiever/explorer, I'd definitely recommend trying Aion. If you are looking for an MMO with engaging combat or great social aspects (grouping) then look elsewhere.

Stay tuned for further opinions, especially on PvP, as I get a bit higher in level!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Left 4 Dead DLC and sale

Left 4 Dead is available for half price right now, and the new free campaign has just been released to boot. Get it now if you don't have it, or get back into it if you do! Either way, the more faces for me to eat, the better.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Epic fail: Australian dictatorship

Urge to kill.... rising.

It's funny how censorship makes me feel much more like taking a gun and massacring a bunch of people than playing Left 4 Dead does.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Demigod half price

.... So go get it.

My review here (short version: it was definitely worth the full price, letalone half).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Playing Demigod

It's been hard to post lately. I have lots of good game design ideas, but writing about them often gets shelved due to the plethora of game demos sitting on my desktop to try. Then, these inevitably get shelved so that I can go and pwn it up in TF2.

But then, sometimes, a new game comes along that is actually interesting enough that I don't feel like playing TF2 whenever I log on. At the moment, that game is Demigod, and I am pleasantly surprised to say that it will probably keep me amused for some good amount of time yet.

I actually wish that I was off playing it right now, but I don't want to be selfish. I want you to experience the joy of it also. Ok, ok, that's not true. I am selfish. I care little for your joy. However this is a game whose online appeal is marred by quite a lack of player numbers, and in my poor isolated Australia (land of the high pings) we are below critical mass to be able to easily get a game going sometimes. Thus, I write.

Let's save some time and do this in bullet form:

- Demigod is the first of the DotA clones (Defense of the Ancients, a Warcraft III mod). There are 2 other clones whose release is in the near future; Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends).
- I never played DotA. I tried once and found it completely impossible to learn, and therefore shite. Demigod has no tutorial, but it does offer several difficulties of enemy AI players. The game is well designed so it is intuitive to pick most things up.
- Players control one of eight demigods. Yes, this is much less than the apparently 80-ish that DotA has. No, I don't believe that all of DotA's 80 classes played radically different from each other. Yes, Demigod's classes do. In addition there are a lot more different skills to choose from as you level, meaning many different "builds" to end up with.
- There is a full underlying RPG-esque combat system, but it is much abridged and all the various numbers are a lot more transparent. The upshot of all this means that you don't have to become a forum lurker to figure out how to play the game, but at the same time there is still a lot of diversity to toy with. I think it's struck a good balance there.
- Most games that people make are 3v3, but you can have any combination of 1-5 players per team (you can do 1v5 if you really want to). Games take around 30 minutes usually.
- The goal of the game is to conquer the enemy's base. This is best done by two separate yet equally important routes:

1) Kit yourself out with lots of shiny items and level up to obtain lots of shiny skills. This in turn comes about by killing wave after wave of enemy computer-controlled monsters. This is most fun due to the rapid leveling speed, and just what I need after too many hours grinding it out in MMO's. You get a hefty bonus for killing enemy demigods as well, and even if you can't kill them you will want to at least harass them to stop them from leveling up as fast as you.
2) Upgrade your team's war effort. This includes upgrading the turrets that defend your base, increasing your team's gold acquisition, etc, but the most important upgrade is to improve the fodder spawning from your portals so that it is less fodder-like and more base-smashing-zergfest like. The better upgrades are unlocked when you reach certain levels of "War Score", which are points that you get for controlling more of the various flags around the map than the enemy does (which each offer various bonuses of their own).

So there's some nice tactical considerations there. Do you focus on AoE skills to level up faster, or more damage/stuns/snares etc to harrass enemy players better? Do you upgrade yourself so that you can perform better, or do you upgrade your team's war effort? Do you concentrate your demigods in one area of the map to try to get some kills, or do you spread out and attempt to control a lot of flags?

Apart from these interesting design considerations, the game just works. It's a blast to play. The production values are high - everything looks top notch, the character's dialogue is amusing, the music is catchy. Each demigod is fun to play in a different way - from the giant castle that can sprout mini turrets from the ground and feed upon enemy turrets, to the "Unclean Beast" who is a force of unstoppable melee destruction, to the teleporting vampire lord who converts enemy monsters to become his minions, to the Angelic archer type that can snipe enemies from half way across the map.

Now, some people among my many legions of followers are not entirely enamored by competitive PvP games. However, note that you can easily play co-op with friends against teams fielded entirely by AI controlled demigods, at 4 different difficulties. There is also single player mode (yes, you can pause this whenever you want) so that you can go it completely alone, and I've found that I've got a lot of hours out of this. Single player also features a "tournament" mode in which you are paired with various combinations of the other demigods, across a variety of maps and game types, to see who can achieve the highest overall score. This becomes quite tough on the hardest difficulty, so provides a lasting challenge and incentive for the achiever within.

There were, of course, awful connectivity issues at launch. However I believe them when they say it's all fixed now, as I have not had a single connection problem while I've been playing. However, if I attempt to play a game with players on the other side of the world (300 ping is probably the limit that feels tolerable), the game will be a total lagfest. This is because the game uses peer-to-peer connections and so must (fairly) run at the speed of the slowest connection. The moral of the story is: play with people close-ish to you and you will never have any problems.

To make up for the rough launch, Stardock have provided a very generous demo. It is generous because it allows you to play the most common map and game type, choosing from 4 of the 8 demigods, for as long as you damned well please. At first this seemed like a bad business choice - why buy the cow when I can get the milk for free?

But after a week of playing the demo, I found myself happily forking the dough over to try out the other maps and characters. The thing is just a blast to play, catering nicely to my inner competitive PvP player, casual achiever, and of course the loot whore within.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Weekly column: Nub of the Week

Every week I have decided to honor the hard work and dedication that some bloggers put into making the most retarded posts that anyone could possibly write.

This week's Nub of the Week is Keen of Keen and Graev's gaming blog. Note that Graev is not included because he does not appear to exhibit any tard-like qualities.

Keen has really made a clean sweep across the board in the last week, beating out a lot of bloggers in a number of categories:

1) Talking about going back to play WoW.

2) Claiming that having 150 players or less in a zone is not "massively" multiplayer enough. I'd accuse him of being some kind of mindless zerg player, but the funny thing is that even with 10,000 players in a zone, you'll be interacting with no more than a couple of them at any particular time because

a) They don't know you
b) You're all on different levels and have different quests and you're the wrong class and your armor really doesn't look quite spiky enough and wtf skills are those anyway /kick.

How about a new definition of a "massively" multiplayer game: Thousands of people available available that I can actually play with at a time. Whoops, games like WoW are not massively multiplayer. Diablo is though. TF2 is. Guild Wars is. Ooh, speaking of which:

3) Insulting Guild Wars 2 for being too instanced and then realizing that it's actually going to be much more 'open world' this time around. His blind hating on games that he has already decided he doesn't like, and his ability to make up silly nonsense about them, really cements his place as this week's Nub of the Week.

Redeeming qualities

So, why is Keen in my Google reader? Well, he does have his benefits. For instance, he plays a lot of upcoming new games that I am sometimes interested in (eg Aion), and if he says he doesn't like them, I know that I have to rush out and try them immediately.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't call your new game an MMO

If you promote a game as being an MMO, there are certain expectations from a certain highly vocal group on the internet. I think of this group as "MMO trolls", but they have also been referred to as "WoW tourists" (ironically by one of the most outspoke WoW tourists around).

The expectations that this group has of your game are simple to predict:

All features will be the same as in World of Warcraft

If deviations from this expectation are found, they will be frowned upon. It doesn't matter if you're hyping a particular feature as your greatest gift to the MMO genre, if the MMO trolls feel that the particular feature would make the game less like WoW, they will say that it's not a *real* MMO, and you should possibly expect the sky to come crashing down because the end may well be nigh.

So, don't hype your game as a *real* MMO. Don't hype it as an MMO at all. It only serves to attract people who have some bizarre set of anti-game-design rules that they seem to think anything with that moniker should adhere to.

Secret bonus comment: If you reply saying "How else can the company obtain $15/month from the players??" then you are a WoW tourist, I don't expect you to understand.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The logging off problem

In the real world, people don't just suddenly disappear because some divine being on a higher plane decides to log off!? So how can we replicate the real world in games when users can log off at any time, or worse have their connection drop? The ability to leave the game at any time isn't just a problem with game realism, it can also cause many issues with group centric activities like raiding and PvP. How much does it suck when your healer or tank drops?

One thing that I have yet to see done in an MMORPG, is the ability to include other players as the objectives to your quest. For example, you receive this quest:

"Find 'Melf Himself' and give him this package."

or better yet:

"Assassinate 'Melf Himself'"

On a side note, it would be funny if your assassination target also had you as their target. It would be pre-ordained PvP with a PvE quest like twist. Something for everyone :P

Upon accepting the quest, you are blocked from talking to the person who is your quest objective. You are also blocked from using the their name in chat. The only way you can find the other person is to talk to NPCs and ask if they saw them recently:

"Yes I saw 'Melf Himself' pass through here only 2 minutes ago. If you hurry, you might catch him at the Blacksmith."

How cool would that be? Oh yeah... logging off problem... What happens if the other person logs off?

Now we discuss a possible solution. Why not have your character become an NPC when you log off? It could wander around and become one of the town folk, or even a henchmen (if you were in a raid or something). No matter what happened to your character while you were logged off, its status would always be the same the next time you logged in. The only thing that would potentially change, is the location of where you last left it. I think it would actually be kinda cool, as you would be surprised every time you logged in.

This would also open up the possibility of 'day jobs', like in city of heroes, except your character actually performs the job as an NPC. Player housing would also become more important, because your NPC character would actually have to live there.

In summary, we need some way to handle the logging off problem, especially with moving toward a dynamic type world. Having having a connection drop or a player rage quit during a group centric activity can really inconvenience other people. It also steals away from the realism of the world a bit. Solve the problem and our online lives become just that little bit easier. ;)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's blocking MMORPG 2.0?

Well the simple answer to this question is time and money, but I thought I'd analyze it a tad more than that. What are the major problems with the MMORPGs of today?

  • Static worlds: Player actions have very little impact on the world. Kill something and it respawns moments later.
  • Everyone is a hero: Everyone follows the same quests and story lines.
  • NPC and monster AI: It's laughable at best. Aggro bubbles? Seriously...
  • Balance: How do you make completely different classes equal in strength?
  • Grind: These will always exist but the disguises need some work.
  • Economy: When you get 10 silver for killing the same rat that respawns every 20 seconds, you know the economy will have issues.
I'm sure there a more, but that's a good enough start. So how do we solve these problems? Can they be solved? These issues aren't new, they just keep getting swept under the design rug for some reason...

  • Static worlds: Simple, make the world dynamic... case closed! Lol, I wish it were that easy. As soon as '13 year old brat' learns how to impact the world in such a way that it ruins the gaming experience of thousands of others, game over. There are many ideas floating around on how a dynamic world should work, but as yet I don't think there is a right one. Essentially the world needs to react to player actions and handle them accordingly. For every player action there needs to be an equal and opposite server reaction in order to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. This brings me to the 'world without a player' scenario, where the world is ever changing on its own. Players should only ever speed up or slow down this process. The AI technology required to do this is available today. The problem lies with cost effectively developing the AI required for a living world into a game. You need an AI eco-system, that balances its self out based on player interaction. Slowly software frameworks will emerge, but I can't see it become mainstream for 10-15 years+.

  • Everyone is a hero: In MMORPG 2.0, this simply isn't going to happen. You will have a few legendary game changing heroes, a lot of champions and a tonne of community heroes. It's not a bad thing, as motstandet excellently points out:

    "Give players the tools to influence the world and some place where they can show off. But make sure there are small pockets of communities. A hero doesn't have to be the one to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom or the one to free everyone from the Matrix. He just has to be the one people tell stories about."

    So the only thing blocking this from happening is problem number 1: static worlds. Fix that and everyone can follow their own story to heroism.

  • NPC and Monster AI: I've seen CS college graduates build NPCs with better AI than you see in MMOs. I have no idea why this is the case. If I had to guess, I would say that developing AI is hard thus costs money. If they can get away with adding an aggro bubble to a monster with a trigger to attack, then they will. There is nothing stopping NPC and monster AI from improving except the game budget.

  • Balance: This unfortunately is a problem that will only slightly improve with time. Balancing a game requires constant analysis of in-game activity via logging. The balancing process can be sped up with better tools and analyzing techniques, but essentially it will always be a problem.

  • Grind: Grind is a product of repetitively executing the same activity over and over. The solution to reducing grind also lies in having a dynamic world. If you give the player a different experience each time, the grind with be less prevalent. There will always be a grind, the trick is to disguise it through variety.

  • Economy: How can a virtual world get the economy right, when the real world can't? The solution lies with getting a balance of currency generated with currency destroyed. It's hard but not impossible. I often get the feeling that this area doesn't receive the attention it deserves. There is nothing stopping games from having better economies now except neglect.
Summarizing, the only thing stopping MMORPG 2.0 is time and money (told ya). The big stepping stone is developing a truly dynamic world and that won't happen for a while. MMO companies also need to recognize that there are other areas of their game (like AI and economy) that need more attention.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Important MMO elements to me

I recently got asked a question by evizaer about what elements would make a good MMO for me. Unfortunately I couldn't fit that answer into anything less than a thesis, so I took a look at the excellent example provided by evizaer and decided to follow suit:

Ten points:
  • Emphasis on horizontal progression
    Some vertical progression is fine, but the game should be based on your ability to use your skills at the right time, rather than being significantly more powerful because of level and/or items.

  • World without a player
    The virtual world and all it's NPCs/Monster should exist and interact with one another as if the player wasn't even there. The player's impact on the world should always be minimal. Events should be occurring all the time which are optional but reward the player for participation.

  • Minimal static questing
    NPCs can still provide quests, but they should lead to events. If two teams have the same quest, the team that gets there first and completes it gets the reward.

  • Carrot and stick society
    Want to kill a peasant? The villages will attack and arrest you. If you break down a door to a house, expect to pay or suffer the consequences. If no one sees or hears you do it, expect to get away with it.

  • Destructive and constructive environments
    Want to burn a house? Can do. The villages will rebuild it. Want to cut down a tree? No probs, but some dyad will regrow it. Just be careful not to set the forest on fire on your first day ;)

  • Death is bad
    You don't necessary have to lose your character completely upon death, but the consequence should be enough to piss you off for the next ten minutes.

  • Difficulty through strategy
    The goblins aren't hard to kill because of their level, they are hard because the sneak up behind you an attack in numbers. Each enemy should have different attack strategies. It's good to feel 'hunted' sometimes.

  • Spawning and movement
    You should never see someone appear out of no-where. Spawning should happen out of sight of players. Enemies should not be glued to areas, they should move around and perform believable tasks.

  • Aggro
    Forget aggro bubbles. If something hears or see you, then it reacts accordingly. They might ignore, observe, flee, hide, attack or call for re-enforcements. Also if an enemy is losing the battle, surrender and fleeing is an option.

  • Players must be able to feel safe
    PvP should be kept to certain areas. This may be an arena or the 'borderlands' etc.
Some more general points:
  • Convenience vs Immersion
    MMOs should appeal to both the casual and hardcore audience, with minimum sacrifice to immersion. Its great to be able to teleport everywhere, but unless 'teleportation' is apart of the story somehow, the game loses a bit of it's immersion. Same goes for bears dropping gold and bastard swords. It's nice to get such drops off wild animals, but it makes no sense what so ever. There needs to be a balance between player convenience and game immersion.

  • Realism vs Fun
    A truly realistic virtual world, would be no fun. The game need to be a game, but with elements of realism. A good game will have found a balance.

  • Solo vs Grouping
    The game must cater for both. Grouping should be rewarded to encourage community involvement, but solo players should not be penalized.
I realise that a lot of the elements listed hear are wishful thinking with today's technology, but lets not forget that MMOs in general were once a wishful thought ;)

Monday, June 29, 2009

The real hardcore!

I fired up my computer first thing Saturday morning in the same tradition that I had been doing every Saturday for the last ten years, except this time it felt a little different. I didn't have an MMO to play. Saturday mornings are my only chance to get some quality gaming time in, and I had nothing to play... I checked my Steam friends list and Melf still hadn't come online, so that meant a single player game was in order. I checked The Steam sales, and to my luck 'Plants vs Zombies' was on sale 50% off. Easy sale.

What an awesome little game! I won't do a review as there are already hundreds, but I can tell you that I was impressed for the price I payed. About an hour into PvZ, a Steam message popped up in the bottom right of my monitor:

"Melf is now playing Diablo 2"

WTF? I love that game! I hadn't played it in ages. I got Melf on Vent and jumped in myself. Melf asked if I wanted to join him in creating a 'harcore' character on The catch was that we needed to first complete the game online in 'normal' mode to unlock 'hardcore' mode. The goal was set! I rolled an Amazon, Melf a Sorceress. The character choice was irrelevant because they would be thrown away after hardcore mode was unlocked. We rushed through normal mode in a little under 5 hours. It would have taken longer if not for Melf's ancient D2 knowledge and the help of a few higher level good samaritans.

It was hardcore time! I chose the Sorceress, entered a name and clicked to continue. The usual message appeared warning me that if I died, it was 100% game over. If Blizzard wanted to deter me, they were going about it the wrong way. Melf created a game, and both our characters appeared in the Rogue Encampment. Melf had rolled a Paladin.

The one thing about D2 that's strangely never bored me, is progressing through the first 5 or so levels. Its fun to find a useful weapon and get enough money to buy those essential items. I think the 7th or so Zombie to fall to my firebolt dropped some hard leather armour with +6 to life. Awesome! I scored a pair of boots with 10% faster hit recovery off a shaman. Leet! I love it!

Level progression in hardcore mode is a little slower than normal. You can't take as many risks, and you need to fight with one finger on the 'drink rejuvenation potion' button. Memories of my old school gaming days were flooding back to me and I was having a ball. The thrill, the risk, the challenge! This was the real hardcore and it felt good to be back!

We finished up Sunday night at level 12 and both still alive in Act 2. We have the Horadric scroll, but need the cube... Will we make it to the end? Hell knows, but we intend to try ;)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mixing PvE and PvP

Tobold has asked recently why developers should bother mixing PvE and PvP into the same MMO, because he feels that the design of each conflicts with the other too much, leading to a reduced experience for both.

The simplest answer to this question is because people like to do both.

The next simplest is because making a whole new game would cost much more money. A game that includes PvE with no PvP is a massive waste of resources for a developer. Contrary to the opinions offered by some people, the vast majority of players enjoy PvP in some way - simply not PvP in an MMO. The negative connotations related to PvP in an MMO can be attributed to experiences of being "ganked", i.e. steam-rolled in a fight that you had no chance of winning or may not have even wanted at the time, because

a) the other player(s) was a higher level than you; and/or
b) you were outnumbered; and/or
c) the other player was able to attack you where/when you did not wish to be attacked.

For a), the solution in an MMO is obvious - make the achievement of maximum power something that is within the reach of all players, i.e., make any time investment required moderate (say, the same amount of time it would take in a single player RPG). This has the pleasant by-product of also fixing the retarded soul-sucking grind progression system that is PvE in many modern MMO's.

For an example of how to do this, as in many things, the answer is to look to Guild Wars. In Guild Wars it takes an easily achievable amount of time to reach maximum level. Most of the game happens at maximum level. Instead of arbitrarily increasing your power so that you end up fighting level 40 rats in between every town, you instead unlock new builds to try. Instead of forcing you to grind mobs/quests to obtain powerful enough gear to proceed through the game, you can easily achieve the most powerful gear and it's the good *looking* gear that you can grind for if you choose to. There is still all the e-peen stroking you can shake a stick at as a result, and all the other standard MMO stuff such as exploration, socializing, achievements (titles/emotes), super challenging areas with enhanced rewards (i.e. raids), etc.

Problem b) is another raised by Tobold. This applies to the 'open world' type of PvP, which often is and absolutely should be full of n00bs running around in big groups zerging each other. It is absolutely ok for the war as a whole to be asymmetric, dependent on who has put in the most time, etc, as this is the way that real wars are and let's face it, it's impossible to balance open world PvP any other way.

Two concessions must be made however. The first is that there must be more than 2 sides, as WAR's bleh PvP has shown.

The second is that there should always be tactical options available to players to counteract the movements of the other side. Games are no fun when no action that you could possibly take will effect the outcome. If your side has fewer players, it should be possible to accomplish various tasks to recruit more NPC's into the army (there should also be solid social networking tools, to organise the actual players that you do have more easily). If the other side chooses to zerg, tactics should be possible so that the enemy is forced to either

i) divide; or
ii) deal with the tactic somehow to avoid having to divide; or
iii) lose the battle/war

WAR has none of these factors and so can not possibly be a satisfying PvP experience (other than the thrill of running around with a large group, sieging a castle, etc, which I admit is quite fun the first few times). But these factors really don't get in the way at all of a solid PvE experience, so the good news is that future MMO's can easily adopt them.

Finally, problem c) above. There are many ways around this. The RvR 'lakes' in WAR were actually a good way to do this, and I hope future games adopt a similar solution.

Bear in mind that none of these problems are present in the more 'arena-based', e-sports style of PvP such as is found in Guild Wars. However for a long time, there were still balance issues where a skill that needed to be nerfed in PvP ruined popular use of PvE skills, or vice versa, making both camps generally unhappy whenever nerfs rolled around. This is another potential area of conflict between PvE and PvP game design.

However, again, Guild Wars eventually got around this - there are now simply skills that have an altered function when engaging in PvP. There are also skills that can only be used in PvE. This allows for fun gameplay in both areas, and for balance changes for one not to affect the other. Of course this has the down side of making the game more complex than necessary (and preventing people from smoothly transitioning to try out their less-preferred game type), but has the up-side of keeping a lot of people happy.

So in summary - PvE and PvP can and should be mixed into the same game, to provide a better experience for players and an efficient way to ensure game longevity and broader appeal. A little bit of common sense drawing from what's worked and what hasn't in previous titles is all that is necessary.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MMOs have made me bitter

I look forward to reading posts that are a little off topic these days, because the usual MMO stuff is starting to sound like a broken record. I'd like to think that I'm experiencing another MMO burnout, but this feels different. I'm not burnt out, I'm angry at the industry for being so arrogant and stupid. They always claim to have a 'new experience', or some buzz feature, but it always turns out to be the same old shit with a different stink. I get the feeling as though no one with any influence in the industry is actually listening or even cares. MMO games are now all about how much grind they can squeeze in for the least amount of development cost.

Gamers aren't treated like loyal paying customers. These days your account can be banned for 'suspicious activity' with no warning or care from the company you had been giving money to for the last 4 years. It's also rare that any MMO games company will take responsibility for an exploit or a bug in their game. Instead they just swing the banhammer around and around and around. It seems to always be the paying customer's fault...

Gamers are made to chew the addictive paddocks of grindville, while the fat cats work out how to make the grass taste better so they can get a little fatter. I am yet to see a single MMO games company actually care about the health or life of the batteries powering their organisations...

MMO companies need to learn to divorce their business model from their game design so that the design is driven by user experience rather than by money. When I play an MMO these days, I don't see a land of fantasy or sci-fi. I see clever design strategies to keep players addicted. I see grind in all it's disguises. Worst of all; I have some idea in my head of what makes a good MMO, and all I see are dribbling excuses that feel more like cloned cash grabs than games. It's like my own analytical brain has doomed me to never again enjoy an MMO world...

Why is that MMO designers make the same mistakes over and over and over? When a new game comes out, it often follows the same flawed path as it's predecessors. Full of bugs, game plays the same as something else but with a buzz feature. The design barely works because it was put together like a picture puzzle with pieces from 10+ other puzzles. Is it because of the size and complexity of the project? Is it because of the financial risk? I'm sick of playing with mangled puzzles, I want a complete picture, and one that I haven't seen before. Is it too much to ask?

So what now? I still enjoy playing video games. I'd much rather play video games than watch TV. I'm going to be steering away from the MMOs for a while and instead target indie type games, where success or failure rests on quality design and clever game play. I want to be able to play a game and respect it's designers for being intuitive and creative rather than loath them for unorginality and repetitive blunders.

There are still some MMOs that I want to take a look at though: Jumpgate, Aion, SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2. I know that they will probably just increase my bitterness, but I haven't given up on the genre just yet. I'd be impressed now if any MMO could hold my attention for more than 3 months. If it did, you'd know about it.

So all in all, apologies if you catch me ranting about fail MMO design decisions in the comments of your blog. It will take a while and some quality gaming to wash the bitterness away. I'm playing Team Fortress 2 at the moment which seems to be helping. I love my RPGs, but it seems that MMORPGs are still a long way off winning me back.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Would you care about that in a non-MMO game?

It seems like everywhere I look these days there is somebody spewing out some nonsense about how nobody will do anything in a game if it is not allotted a sufficient "reward", where reward is some shiny trinket that your character can keep.

In one form or another, the human race has been playing games for thousands of years. Despite the astronomical salaries attached to some pro sports stars, most people are perfectly content to play games completely for the fun of the game itself. When you checkmate the king in chess you don't look around expectantly waiting for his treasure chest to materialize in front of you, you set up another game and set to thinking about how you're going to take down your opponent this time.

This new bribery of sorts is a thing pertaining specifically to MMO's. Single player RPG's rewarded people with trinkets all the time, but it never became an issue because the games didn't involve "grind". Everything you did was moving you closer towards completion of the story, and very few encounters were the same as any others. Therefore you actually enjoyed what you were doing, and so did not need to be "motivated" to play through the game.

Most MMO's, on the other hand, are painful. Everything you do is the same as everything else you've already done, and so players actually have to be goaded, much like cattle, into going down a particular path.

The worst part is, there are some people who seem to accept this as par for the course, and play games only if the progression of juicy "rewards" fits their expectations.

These people are what are referred to, in general, as "Loot Whores". Don't get me wrong, we all love loot to a certain degree, but most of us can appreciate the fun or lack-thereof of the gameplay in some way or another. But the loot whore is a beast who has eschewed all forms of gameplay in favor of pure, pathological desire to obtain more loot.

Loot Whores come in two distinct flavours. The first is probably the most obnoxious, because they pretend to be "hardcore" in their appreciation for particular elements of gameplay. In actual fact, all species of Loot Whore care only about loot, but these "hardcore" beasts require their loot in a given context. Some players require that the loot only be acquired in the presence of at least 20 other people, or perhaps that the loot is not able to be obtained by at least 90% of the other people playing the game. The most obnoxious kind require the loot to be taken from other players.

The less "hardcore" flavour of loot whore is less bothersome, in that they will take their loot however they can get it. However, make no mistake - they are still a parasite on the soul of the video game industry, swaying the game developers towards removing all vestiges of gameplay from their games until all we're left with are glorified slot machines with a chat window.

What can you say to the Loot Whore to lead them back to the path of the righteous? I suspect that there is precious little, it is probably already too late for most. Perhaps the direct approach is the best. Sit them down, look them in the eye, and ask to them to please explain why they would give two shits about whatever they're complaining about if the game wasn't an MMO.

Doesn't look that smart to me...

Wolfram Alpha

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Let us eat cake

Ryan Shwayder of Nerfbat has an interesting note up on his blog that I've been meaning to comment on for the last few days about Risk vs Reward in MMO's. Basically, he says that in order for the reward to feel rewarding, it has to come with a significant risk of failure.

I want to point out that there are different types of 'fun', i.e. reward, that someone can have in a game. For now, let's talk about just the two examples implied as the reward in Ryan's post. I will define these as:

"Nintendo" fun - the player continually tries and tries to beat something and then feels a rush when they finally manage to do it

"Shiny" fun - the less gameplay-linked aspect of "achievement" fun. i.e., getting new shiny items/levels/powers. I like to also call this "loot whore" fun, mainly to annoy people that I consider to be "loot whores".

Now, some people prefer the 'loot whore' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too hard, because they are less likely to get their loot. Others prefer the 'Nintendo' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too easy, because they like challenges. In reality, everybody falls in to both categories to varying degrees, and so will generally be pissed off in some way at some thing or another.

I think the standard MMO design tactic to circumvent this seeming paradox is to create the illusion of challenge. It's challenging to flip tails five times in a row on a coin toss, however there's precious little you can do to affect the outcome of the coin toss. Similarly it's challenging to beat a mob a few levels above you in WoW, but your actual actions in the game don't really matter much. I like to refer to this as 'faux gameplay'.

So, everyone feels challenged (but they actually aren't), and everyone gets loot. But, everyone is left feeling kind of a bit hollow (or maybe it's just me...)

Maybe a better way would be to actually divorce the 'Nintendo' aspect from the 'loot whore' aspect. Give players loot regardless of whether they succeed. Give the feedback for the 'Nintendo' typed players in the traditional form of high scores, ranking charts, harder difficulty levels, optional more challenging areas, etc.

Now, the reduced number of players QQ-ing on the forums may be offset slightly by the increased number QQ-ing about how all the 'n00bz' are getting the epic lewtz and how their e-peen is feeling dangerously under-nourished as a result. However, this is a small price to pay in my book, as this way we could have MMO's with actual gameplay that retain their addictive 'loot whore' nature.

In other words, we could have our cake and eat it too.

Valve announce Left 4 Dead 2

Talk about rapid development

Surely sales of the first Left 4 Dead would still be going well only a year after release? It seems like Valve are shooting themselves in the foot a bit with this - or are they?

Actually, I think this must have been their plan all along. Think about it, they had a bunch of experimental stuff they wanted to test:

- Mass market appeal of zombie apocalypse
- AI director algorithms
- Co-op gameplay where any one person gets completely disabled without their team mates
- PvP where the 2 teams are completely different and have different objectives
- Level of interest for mini updates i.e. new maps/achievements/survival mode

So they make a relatively cheap game (only a few maps, no real story, they already had the engine developed) to test this stuff out. Now that they know it all works well, they can give us a 'bigger game' as they describe it with all these ideas fleshed out.

In summary: Valve's idea-test games are better than everybody else's *actual* games.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Industry insiders reveal how to fail at game design

Thanks to Sente for linking to this piece by Sanya Weathers. Basically, Sanya interviewed a bunch of MMO industry vets who all pretty much say that players don't *want* story in their quests, players don't even want quest descriptions, players only want to Kill Ten Rats (TM)

I just have to chime in with my 2 cents here.

If you force players to grind for hours on end to reach the achievements that they so heartily desire, of course they're going to try and short-cut that as much as possible.


Minimizee the freaking grind? Stop allowing your business model to dictate your game design? Oh no, knowledgeable industry insiders keep using the same old business model and instead blame it all on the players. As though they're not the exact same demographic that also like to play single player RPG's, in which story is king and if you skip the quest text you may as well uninstall the game.

In summary:

Step 1) Take out grind.
Step 2) Replace with gameplay (various challenge levels, twitch-based or strategical or a combination) and story.
Step 3) Profit.

A handy by-product of this is that without the grind, friends who get the game at different times can actually play with each other. What an exciting age of game design that would be.

Or, you could continue to go with the tried and tested "AAA" MMO strategy:

Step 1) Copy WoW
Step 2) ???
Step 3) Close up shop within a year from release because nobody is playing